This morning, I saw a negative comment on Facebook about people who say “I just want to be happy” when asked what they want out of life. I started to respond to the post, but quickly discovered that I had more to say than was reasonable to share on someone else’s Facebook wall. And, the number of things I had to say increased when I read another response in which someone snidely observed that the current generation had been raised with the idea that happiness was good.
So, I’ll start there. It is.
Happy people are, in general, kinder and more patient. They’re healthier. And, you know, aside from all that…being happy is just a heck of a lot nicer than being miserable.
I think that when people say, “I just want to be happy,” it’s a shorthand. I think they’ve recognized that being happy doesn’t depend on having a particular job or a certain number of square feet in your home or finally being able to buy that boat. They’ve recognized that the details don’t much matter.
I don’t think I’d ever say “I just want to be happy” in response to “What do you want out of life?” But, that’s probably because I over-answer—I’m that person who makes you sorry you asked the question. I’d probably say something like:
I haven’t thought in those terms in years. I think wanting specific things—landmarks, achievements, jobs, material objects, etc.—is a trap. People spend years chasing them, thinking that they’ll be happy or content or confident when they reach that next bar, and for most it never seems to happen. I just want to live life. Take what’s in front of me as it comes, be as honest and authentic and kind as I can be and keep exploring what life has to offer. Hope to leave every person I encounter just the tiniest bit better off than I found him.
But, most people aren’t writers. And, they have more respect for your time. And, honestly, when I do offer an answer like that, it’s typically unsatisfying to the questioner. That’s not a surprise, perhaps, because maybe the person who asks “what do you want out of life?” sees the world very differently than I do and can’t wrap his head around the idea that I really believe being too clear about what you want out of life is the death knell for happiness—it’s a framework that prevents you from fully seeing and appreciating what lands in your path.
I think most people have always just wanted to be happy. In the 80s, when I was a young adult, most people had clear, material visions of what happiness looked like. There was a career, an income level, a car, a neighborhood associated with “being happy, ” so those were the things they listed when asked what they wanted. I think that idea has been shown up for a lie, and that many people—not nearly enough, but many—are recognizing that checking off achievements and upgrading to the right zip code isn’t necessarily going to improve your experience of life. I think that many, many people achieved the things they “wanted out of life” and ended up spending a lot of time wondering why they still hated their lives.
I believe that people are happy when they live as they were created to live—and you can interpret that however you want; whether that means God or evolutionary brain wiring makes no difference here. I think that when we’re honest and authentic and when we live in community and reach out to help those around us, we become happier. I also think that chasing goals like political office or a big promotion at work or a beach house turns us away from all of those things—that people who are trying to get something tend to withdraw, to manipulate, to be more selfishly inclined. And, I just don’t know anyone who ever got happy by being selfish.
I guess, if you want a short answer, I just want to live life as it was meant to be lived. But now, if you’re the kind of guy who would ask me what I wanted out of life, I suspect that you’d follow up with something like, “But what does that mean?”
I have no idea. That’s the point. Life isn’t a Lego play set with an instruction sheet for making it look like the picture on the box. It sprawls out and unfolds and our “job” is to welcome the next new development and do the best thing available to us with it. And, when we do that, I think that most of us are happy—without having given a moment’s thought to trying to get happy.